A lot of bad things happen in a world that has lost God. One is the disappearance of the rational freedom that is the natural setting for faith, science, morality, and pursuit of the common good.
Just before he was elected pope, Cardinal Ratzinger noted that modern man is “building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate standard consists solely of one’s own ego and desires.“
The claim seems paradoxical. What kind of dictatorship makes the ego and desires of each individual the standard? It sounds more like anarchy. And besides, such a dictatorship couldn’t keep a believer’s ego and desires from turning toward God. So what and how would it dictate, and why was the Cardinal so worried about it?
One answer is that dictatorship and anarchy are closely connected. Freedom must be ordered freedom, since without order our efforts are continually disrupted by interference from others that soon turns into a war of all against all. But to have ordered freedom we need to recognize a standard higher than ego and desire. Without God—without a transcendent standard that can order and make sense of all other standards—we end up with no coherent standard at all, just conflicting impulses trying to impose or pass themselves off as standards. The result is the reign of force and fraud, and thus a mixture of chaos and tyranny.
The means of social control now available to the powerful push that mixture strongly toward tyranny. It’s worth noting that one of the worst tyrannies of recent times idolized the triumph of the will, while others reduced religion and morality to pure expressions of class interest. In both cases loss of the transcendent led to a substitution of what is wanted for what is good and so a radical rejection of justice.
The natural result of relativism is not liberation but the advent of a false this-worldly transcendent—the will of the leader, nation, working class, technocratic managers, or whatever. Man is social and rational, so he won’t accept the disappearance of standards that connect him to his fellows and order his thoughts and actions. He is also weak and self-centered, so he looks for something purely human that can spare him the trouble and risk of giving himself over to God, the only solid way to go forward and get out of the situation he’s fallen into
Nietzsche was a famous example. He spoke of the death rather than loss of God, but the significance was the same, and he responded by calling for a superman who would create his own standards. Nor was he alone. When not restrained by a strong religious sense American democracy also makes the ego and its desires the final standard. That side of the American spirit has given rise to the heroic individualism seen in Emerson’s call for radical self-reliance and the Supreme Court’s claim that “at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.“
Such efforts to create one’s own moral and spiritual reality, which are a sort of self-divinization, never go anywhere because no one is able to carry them out. But if there is no God, and man cannot make himself God, there is no order transcending ego and desire that can give us a position and footing in the world. The result is that we become very small and weak.
That’s why Nietzsche was driven to the concept of the “last man,“ who seeks only comfort and security, and Emerson to speak of “quantities of poor lives, of distressing invalids, of cases for a gun.“ That, they thought, was the alternative to the impossible superhuman moral creativity of which they dreamed. And it’s why the Supreme Court has deployed its own heroic conception of the individual primarily to deprive the most fundamental human relations of form, function, and status through its support of abortion and the full normalization of homosexuality. To make individual man the measure, the Court is impelled to denature relationships like marriage and parentage that help define what he is.
The basic problem is that ego and desire aren’t a guide to anything. Someone who has only them to go by will be plagued by uncertainty and insecurity, and end up subordinating himself to whatever around him is strongest. The dictatorship of relativism thus begins with suppression of objective standards, supposedly in the interest of human creativity but actually in that of human weakness. It ends in the dictatorship of the strongest will and most obsessive desire.
In Nietzsche’s Germany that dictatorship first took the form of crass imperialism, then rebellion against middle class decencies, then Nazism, then obsession with security and consumer goods, then politically correct suppression of normal attitudes and responses, and finally a will to self-annihilation. Germans are philosophical, and if they are convinced that human life makes no sense they infer the necessity of getting rid of it—either their own or that of others.
In America many of the same tendencies have been evident, although their logic has been softened by our easier circumstances and more pragmatic tendency of thought. Tocqueville, Emerson’s contemporary, noted in the 1830s a sort of soft democratic dictatorship in which “the majority undertakes to supply a multitude of ready-made opinions for the use of individuals, who are thus relieved from the necessity of forming opinions of their own.“
The basic thought still holds, although changing conditions have modified its application. The centralization of social life and pervasiveness of the electronic media mean that today it is less the majority than the media, knowledge, and persuasion industries that determine opinion and indeed construct reality. If media figures, certified experts, and various propagandists all say abortion and gay marriage are basic human rights, and opposition is hateful, irrational, and extremist, then that’s how it is and no one can say otherwise. In the absence of institutional focus and authority, opposition by those who sense something has gone wrong mostly takes the form of populist obstinacy and sporadic rebellion that never makes durable progress.
And that is our American version of the dictatorship of relativism. Instead of each of us making his own moral reality, as the Supreme Court would have it, dominant social forces create moral reality for us and tell us it’s for the benefit of our individuality and desire. We’re told we have to be free and equal, and then we’re told how that requires us to think and act. Career, consumer goods, and individual indulgences are to be the center of every life, with politically correct activism as an outlet for idealists. Critical voices go unheard, because the imbalance of resources and extreme careerism of the educated and articulate classes mean that respectable public discussion never opposes the interests of bureaucrats and billionaires who prefer clients and economic units to human beings who take fundamental concerns seriously.
Under such circumstances only an absolutely independent and authoritative force can free us, and restore the possibility of life in accordance with reason and our best understanding of what is good and true. And that force can only be God and his Church: nothing else is adequate. So now more than ever, the world needs the Church as a counterweight rather than junior partner to the powers that be. May all Christians, and especially Christian leaders, be up to the task.